The narrator is 139-year-old Herbert, who candidly admits being a congenital
liar. He couldn't read until his 50s, then, thanks to Leah, he started
reading books nonstop. Now he cannot speak but he still reads.
His story begins in 1919, when he was 33, Annette 21 and Phoebe 17.
Annette was back from eight months in Paris, during which she had an affair with a painter, and was teaching history at a college. Phoebe was a misfit, a lesbian, but also a devout student of Annette's class and, soon, Annette's lesbian
Phoebe's parents are Jack, who started out a humble cowboy but got rich and now
owned a fleet of taxis and his own car, and Molly, who was considered a little crazy.
One day the family organized a picnic near the house of a German immigrant
called Ernie. Molly invited local aristocracy, the Collins, even if it was
obvious to Phoebe that the snobs would not show up. During the picnic Herbert
landed his plane there and so met both Ernie and Jack's family, notably
the beautiful Phoebe.
At the time Herbert was a poor 33-year-old bachelor who was building a house
on someone else's land. Getting off the plane, he captured a snake to sell
it to a medicine man, and pretended to Phoebe that it was his pet.
Herbert impessed Jack to the point that Jack decided to finance Herbert's
business proposal: a factory of airplanes; and teenager Phoebe had a crush on
Herbert, causing Annette's jealousy. Every female in Jack's household was
secretely infatuated with Herbert, who was given free lodging.
We learn that
Herbert was raised by a father who was selling cannons, but at the age of ten
he parted with him and his two brothers, after causing the destruction of
their home, and was adopted by a Chinese man.
In between the business discussions with Jack, Herbert went to hunt frogs
to feed his snake and hired a homeless man to do it for him.
Meanwhile, he lived in Jack's mansion and made easy money selling Ford cars.
He sold one to Stu when he went to his farm to seduce Stu's wife, but Stu's
wife had run away and so he ended up becoming friend of Stu and his sons
Goog and Goose, and sold them a Ford car. Then suddenly he decided to
marry Phoebe. However, when he was about to tell her parents, he realized
that it wasn't a good idea: her mother Molly was clearly hostile and later her
father Jack told him how disgusted he was by old men marrying young girls.
Nonetheless, Phoebe offered herself to him and he did not hesitate.
They started meeting on the roofs, pretending that the noise was made by possums.
A flashback shows how Jack had made his fortune with a gold mine and married the beautiful barmaid Molly.
Another flashback shows how Molly's mother committed suicide, and an aunt told her that her grandma had done the same, and then to dissuade Molly, then 14, to end up mad too they took her to Dr Grigson, who specialized in electrical novelties. For years Molly wore an electric belt that was supposed to prevent the hereditary madness of the family. The same aunt took the orphan Molly as a maid in her hotel. The electric belt seemed to work because Molly's brothers Walter and Sean were never happy, while Molly was. But one day a handsome man rejected her because he heard stories about her electric belt and her family's hereditary madness, so she left and took a job as barmaid in Jack's town, Ballarat, and, when he proposed to her, she threw away the electric belt (except that a curious boy, David, saw her and thought that is was an electric chastity belt). Then she married the richest bachelor in town, Jack.
Back to Phoebe and Herbert's secret affair, one day Molly thought she was going mad because she was hearing voices even if nobody was in the house; and then she saw her daughter Phoebe fall naked from the sky. Phoebe indeed fell while making love to Herbert, and broke her arm. A neighboring widow, Alice Kentwell, saw her clearly, but Phoebe faked an incident with Alice's brother Jonathon, famous
for stealing other people's letter.
To fool her parents, Phoebe had to pretend that she's interested in other boys,
and even intercepted a letter from Alice Kentwell, the only one who had
witnessed the fall from the roof. Meanwhile, Herbert rented a room from
a discreet Chinese landlord. Herbert was sent on a mission to fly one of
Jack's business partners, Cocky Abbot. The man insisted on taking his son
with him, causing the plane to be overweight and therefore an emergency
landing in front of Jack's mansion. Not only were a car damaged and a horse
killed, but Alice felt that this was the last straw and went to sergeant
House to report the fact that Phoebe had collided on purpose with her brother
causing him injuries in order to hide her love encounter.
The sergeant thought that she was crazy.
Jack has called for a meeting with two potential investors: Cocky and Ian.
Herbert, who has stolen the plan for an airplane from an unsuccessful inventor,
makes a fool of himself in front of both, even unleashing his snake on Cocky's
son. The result is that both investors pull out. In the middle of the night
Jack, distraught, enters Herbert's room, takes the snake and commits suicide
by having the poisonous snake bite him. The townsfolk demand that Molly
expels Herbert from her home but Molly doesn't. Instead she decides to move
with Phoebe to Ballarat, the old gold town, now declining. Phoebe invites
Annette to come with them for a few days. This makes Herbert jealous but then
Annette even more jealous as she understands that Herbert is Phoebe's lover.
As soon as they arrive, Molly asks to be taken to doctor Grigson. She wants
an electric belt from the aged and impoverish doctor.
Now we read a letter from Phoebe to Annette. Molly and Phoebe are leaving in a hotel of the big city (Melbourne) and Phoebe is engaged to Herbert, who has
found a job selling cars, but this time inside the dealer's offices, not
in the countryside. Molly and Phoebe mainly spend the money they inherited.
Annette attends the wedding. Herbert forgets to mention that he is already
married to a woman named Marjorie. Herbert takes possession illegally of
a land owned by the Church but abandoned, and builds their home there.
Phoebe is increasingly fond of airplanes. She also befriends a penniless
epileptic poet, Horace. When she gets pregnant, she dosn't tell Herbert
and instead asks Horace to procure her an abortion although it is illegal.
Horace begs a friend for help and this friend prescribes a poison. The poison
simply makes Phoebe throw up but does not harm the child, Charles.
However, Molly now believes that Horace is Phoebe's lover and Charles'
real father. Herbert promised Phoebe to gift her his airplane in return
for completing the pregnancy, and Phoebe takes on flying the plane.
In passing, we learn that half-mad Molly was so passionate about electricity
that 20 years later she would become an electricity tycoon. Herbert builds
a room in the house for Horace, hoping that poetry will distract Phoebe from
flying, a dangerous hobby, and also that Horace will teach him how to read
and write (Herbert is still illiterate but didn't tell Phoebe).
It turns out that Horace is also a good maid around the house and a good foster
parent to Charles. Herbert sees the ghost of Jack around the house and
suspects that Charles is simply a reincarnation of Jack.
Another baby is born, Sonia. Meanwhile, Phoebe falls in love with birds
and Herbert has to build several cages for them. Annette comes to visit.
Horace leaves the house, clearly uncomfortable. Herbert loses his job at
the beginning of the Great Depression. Phoebe flies away with Annette and
leaves Herbert with the two undesired children.
We are told that later Annette would commit suicide.
Herbert tells how, after living as a homeless street child at the age of ten,
he was adopted by the 37-year-old Chinese man Goon, who as a child had
witnessed the English massacre the hard-working Chinese miners and had
escaped by disappearing. He forced Herbert to learn the trick of
disappearing but warned him to use it only in case of terror.
Herbert used it childishlyand he earned the reputation among the Chinese
of being a demon.
Goon had to pay a nephew to find him a new home.
Then the story returns to the Great Depression. Herbert is now a nomadic gold
digger, living in a car with his two children. One day they meet a dancer
dressed like an emu, Leah, who hates gold diggers. Charles opens her suitcase
and they realize that she has snakes in it: she is a snake-dancer too.
The children are impressed. Herbert, jealous performs the disappearing trick
for the first time in more than 30 years.
A lengthy flashback tells the story of Leah. As a 16-year-old teenager,
she had decided to become a doctor, inspired by a poor unmarried doctor,
Eddie Wysbraum, an old friend of her rich father Sid. Sid and Eddie got
her into a medical school of the big city (Sydney) and found her lodging
with a widow who rented rooms. There she had met Izzie Kaletsky, the only
male tenant, whom she had started dating. Leah was fascinated by Izzie's
mother Rosa, a former dancer from Russia and a former communist who was
expelled from the Communist Party because she had an affair with a senior
comrade. Rosa's other son, Joseph, was a revolutionary in Russia. Rosa
taught Leah to dance. When Izzie lost his job, Leah slept with Rosa's
friend Mervyn, a sleazy theatrical agent, in order to get a job as a
dancer. She was 19 and still a virgin and dropped out of medical school.
Rosa tried in vain to dissuade her. Leah married Izzie but still joined Mervyn's
itinerant show as a dancer. She sometimes cheats on Izzie but always confesses
in her letters.
Izzie has joined the Communist Party but is soon expelled because the
Party learns that someone with his name has published material that
is deemed anti-revolutionary. This further depressed the man who is leaving
off the money sent to him by his itinerant snake-dancer wife and lives with his parents.
Leah lives with Herbert and his children. Her emu dance is successful, while
Herbert fails to repeat his disappearing feat in front of a paying audience.
One night, drunk, Leah sleeps with Herbert, but then promptly writes a letter
to Izzie confessing the sin. She then tells Herbert that she doesn't love him,
but continues living with him in his improvised camp. This arrangement
lasts until Izzie decides to reach Leah. Leah is torn towards Izzie: she is
loyal to him but she enjoys her nomadic life. Izzie proudly reveals that
he cleared his name with the Party: he found out that it was his brother
Joseph who wrote an anti-revolutionary article, and has notified the Party.
Leah realizes what this means: Izzie will be cleared of the accusation,
but his brother Joseph in Russia will be punished, possibly with death.
The town police come to tell Leah and Izzie and Herbert to leave town,
as they are known to be communist agitators. Izzie suspects that Herbert
has informed the police and beats him up, something he wanted to do from
the beginning to the man who slept with his wife. Leah dumps Izzie and
returns to her nomadic life with Herbert, the two moving from town to
town with their variety act. Charles, now 14 years old, sells birds.
Leah still writes to Izzie once a week and still sends money to Rosa.
Herbert tells Leah how he got Molly's electric belt (yet another flashback):
after Phoebe left him, Molly (only six years older than him) took care of his children and briefly became his lover, and the electric belt was one of her
farewell gifts with the car that Herbert still has. Herbert confronts the
railway police that is harassing the homeless but only ends up losing his
car because he is forced to take the train back to Ballarat and the police
destroy his car. They perform briefly in Ballarat for a US-born impresario,
Nathan Schick, who pays them very little, until a telegram informs Leah
that Izzie has had an accident. She takes the train back to Melbourne,
where she learns that Izzie has had both legs amputated after falling under
a train while chased by the police. She decides to stay
and take care of him, living in her parents' house. Meanwhile, Herbert becomes
Nathan's chaffeur and his daughter Sonia dies while playing in a mineshaft.
Herbert, reduced to poverty, travels back to the town where he squatted as
a homeless child and finds Goon, now an old man. Goon denies that he ever
knew or taught Herbert the trick to disappear. Herbert steals Goon's book
"The Book of Dragons" thinking that it contains supernatural secrets, but
instead it's a book of very practical business advice. In the process of
stealing it, Herbert also severes a finger of the poor old man.
Herbert is jailed for the theft and aggression.
Herbert now shifts the story to the lone adventures of his son Charles.
Charles rides a motorcycle and goes door to door selling snakes that eat
mice. He arrives at the house of Les and Marjorie Chaffey, infested by mice
like every other place, and sells them snakes in return for food and lodging.
Charles learned of the plague in the newspapers while in Sydney.
A flashback tells us why he went to Sydney: he was looking for his mother
Phoebe. He started by visiting Leah, where he saw Izzie without legs and
heard him talk about enlisting volunteers to fight the fascist government
in Spain. Leah's father, now a widower after Rosa's death, helped Charles
look for her mother. Finally, someone recognized the picture and Charles
was reunited with her mother. But she was hardly excited to see him again:
she was busy trying to seduce a publisher, still convinced of being a
good poet (Annette and Horace were reluctant to tell her how awful her
poetry was). Disappointed, Charles decided to join the communist fight
in Spain, but was rejected by Izzie's comrade George, who instead sold
him his motorcycle, the one that now he uses to sell snakes to mice-infested
households. Overnight, Les disassembles Charles' motorcycle: a bored man,
who was presumed a genius by his mother, he can't resist the curiosity
to find out how the machine works. But then he can't reassemble it.
Charles is stuck at their home.
Meanwhile, Herbert is visited by the cop who arrested him. sergeant Reg Moth, a corrupt police officer, who forces him to buy Goon's finger in a jar. Herbert
has started studying books, determined to learn how to read and write. He is distracted by the monsters that emerge from the jar.
Herbert continues the story of Charles. Days go by, and Les doesn't find the
motivation to put the motorcycle back together. Eventually, Charles starts
feeling that his hosts are crazy people. Charles starts trapping birds with
the dream of opening a pet shop, and crazy Les helps with construct ingenious
traps. One day Les takes Charles to help the schoolteacher, Emma, who has been
attacked by a monitor lizard. Charles and Emma fall in love. Les then finally
fixes his motorcycle. We learn in passing that years later Emma would claim
to her son Hissao that she got pregnant with a monitor lizard, exhibiting as
evidence a lizard foetus in a jar.
Emma and Charles get married, despite a warning from her father that she is
insane, and Herbert cannot attend the wedding because he is still in jail.
They move to Sydney and open the pet shop, soon visited by Leah.
A child, Henry, is born.
Britain declares war on Hitler's Germany and Australia allies with Britain.
Charles tries to enlist in the army, but is rejected because he is going deaf.
Emma, however, is scared enough to go mad: the releases their lizard monitor
and moves into its cage. Charles begs her in vain to come out. Leah has to
leave Izzie lone and travel to the pet shop to clear the matter: she finds out
that Emma believes that Charles has enlisted, and clarifies that he was not
accepted. Then Emma leaves the cage, and Charles can believe that she is in
love with him; but soon Emma cannot resist the temptation to sleep into the
cage again, and we are told that she would do it for the rest of her life.
During the war Charles receives the visit of Nathan, who suggests that he
sends pets to the US soldiers stationed in Australia, and then proposes
an export business at the end of the war. Charles' pet shop gets bigger and
bigger. Nathan is the only one to speak openly of Emma's madness. Emma is now
taking care of two children, Henry and the Japanese baby Hissao, apparently
born during the Japanese bombing of Australia (not explained explicitly,
but it is implied that Hissao was born from a Japanese father).
One day Emma even accepts an illegal immigrant from China, Henry Lo, aspiring
architect, who moves into another cage.
The 63-year-old Herbert is finally released from jail in 1949, four years
after the end of the war. He has not only learned to read and write but
even obtained a degree in history.
He is shocked to find his son Charles a rich businessman with a big emporium.
Charles is trying to reunite the family. He wants his mother Phoebe to move
into his big house: Phoebe is still delusional about her literary skills,
and has started a magazine, funded originally by Annette (before she fled
with another woman), from her old friend Horace and from Charles. Charles
also wants his father Herbert to stay, but Phoebe doesn't want to live under
the same roof. She has discovered Herbert's previous marriage to a Marjorie
and has not forgiven him. Leah is terrified of returning to the boring lifestyle
of Len and Izzie. Charles invites all of them at a reunion dinner. At one point
he loses his patience and tell everybody that he is supporting all of them:
wife, children, parents and Leah. They all failed.
Herbert cannot stay without working. He decides to improve Charles' building,
but his demolition of a wall greatly upsets Charles. Then Herbert takes care
of six-year-old Hissao, but the child looks like his lost daughter Sonia,
and one day Herbert dresses him up like a girl, and Charles takes away Hissao
from him and sends him to boarding school.
One chapter is written by Leah: she has found Herbert's diary (that we are
reading) and is upset that he distorted so many stories. In particular, Herbert
didn't mention that Charles paid a bribe to have Herbert transferred in prison,
that he paid a lawyer to protect illegal immigrant Lo, that she and Herbert
cowrote successful books, including "Gaol Bird".
Leah moves in and out of Charles' house.
In 1961, when she is almost 50 and Hissao is
an 18-year-old college student, they have to help Charles who has been getting
involved in a smuggling scheme designed by Nathan in the USA. Hissao charms
a journalist sent to investigate. Just then his mad mother Emma presents
him with a lizard foetus in a jar that she claims is her son... but it is just
Herbert's old jar with the severed finger of his victim.
(Here the book mentions Hissao's "two elder brothers": Henry is mentioned a few times, but George just in passing).
Furious at his wife's disrespectful madness, Charles grabs a gun, shoots
the monitor lizard and then shoots himself. His three children and Leah discover
that his business was losing money and explain to Emma that she has to sell
Herbert follows all the events powerless after suffering a debilitating stroke.
He and Emma mostly fight for possession of the jar that contains (according to him) a finger and (according to her) a foetus.
Hissao tells Leah that he has no intention of continuing his father's business
and instead intends to become an architect.
However, he becomes precisely what his demented mother wants him to become:
a smuggler of exotic birds, assisted precisely by Leah. And a rich one.
He takes an international flight to Europe hiding a precious parrot in his pants. He tries to seduce an Italian passenger, Rosa, flying
in the seat next to his. She tries to grab his penis through the pants and
instead kills the parrot. He spends the night in Italy with Rosa. In the morning
he realizes that the loss of that precious parrot jeopardizes the business plans
of the family. He flies to Japan and convinces some investors to invest a
huge amount in the pet shop. Hissao uses the money to put people into the pet
shop: he picks a representative person of each kind and puts him or her in
a cage, including Leah, presented as a Jew, and Herbert, presented as a
139-year-old freak. The exhibition is generating a lot of anger in the streets,
and protesters are permanently camped in front of the emporium. Hissao says
that he hates Herbert and blames him for everything that happened to him,
but Herbert feels that Hissao needs help to face the trouble that is coming up.